I’ve finished Moby Dick, at long last. My earliest memory of Moby Dick was as a segment in a sitcom on British TV when I was a child. Brian Connolly has been set to read the book by his parole officer. He never reads it, preferring to watch one of the film adaptations. I’m not entirely sure if the parole officer had read it; she probably had not (that being the joke) as I’m not sure how it could help an ex-criminal reform. Years later it would resurface in the person of Moby who is, apparently, named for his relation to Herman Melville. Another glimpse off the bow, another nothing that signifies the behemoth that is the White Whale. Closest was when a former partner read Moby Dick for her under-graduate degree, or rather chose to read something else instead. Nobody read Moby Dick; it was a leviathan as elusive as its namesake. I read homages, pastiches and heard jokes about the whale, but only encountered people who had at most begun the pursuit only to let their harpoons drop, their ropes slacken and the White Whale only descend once more. Being possessed of more than a little time and, finally, an impetus* to tackle the book, I decided to… well, to be an Ishmael.
It’s an odd beast; neither reporting nor travelogue, certainly not a novel in anything like the conventional sense. The plot is at most perfunctory and for about 75-80% of the novel’s length not at all the concern of the narrative; certainly the narrator is not guiding the direction of the ship or the story but upon embarkation disappears into anonymity among the crew until the very final moment. The hunt for the whale is subsumed beneath a wider hunt for whales and digressions on cetology in general. It bears resemblance to other modernist texts in this regard and is, indeed, included in the fraternity of American modernist text, a prototypical example. It is a beautifully written ponderous series of digressions, entirely unconcerned with its destination or location and as such marvellously captures in prose the sense of a ship at sea, hewing here and there tracking the untraceable. Absolutely and unquestionably it is a genius of writing.
I do not think it is directionless in its intent as it is in plot. Moby Dick, I would conjecture, was an attempt by Herman Melville to elevate the profession of whaling from obscurity up in to the public consciousness and from there in to a heroic paean. I believe that this is largely the why of Moby Dick’s meandering story arc; Melville is labouring under many masters as he describes the life both every day and mythological aboard the Pequod. The book establishes the desire and act of whaling as complete normalcy, rhetorically asking “why is almost every robust and healthy boy… at some time or other crazy to go to sea?” Each of the chapters on the life and habits of whales, the description and loving fidelity to the craft of the whaleman is to establish in the mind of the reader the physical and material realities of life aboard ship, to give them a sense of it and thereby locate it within a world that the landbound reader can relate to. The writer returns to this rhetorical device to link the reader the story, to involve them by addressing them directly and to make whaling analogous to all life “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-fish and a Fast-fish, too?”
It is important to keep in mind that Melville was asserting a normalcy of his time; an idea of normalcy that we can interrogate, and should. Everything about whaling is connected to masculinity; not healthy but a necessary madness of men. There are almost no female characters, and certainly none once the ship gets underway; a device that might go by as historical fidelity if not for the conventional symbolic deployment of women within the narrative. Women exist purely as a representation of the abstracted civilisation of the land×; consider the moment of shared conscience between Starbuck and Ahab, reflecting on the wives they have left behind.
Yet whaling, ships and normalcy is a distinctly male-exclusive province. Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg is a synecdoche of this, but life aboard the Pequod is a microcosm of homosociality, of the fruitfulness of men among men. Keep in mind that the Nantucketer trade is to harvest spermaceti from whales, then read this section:
“I squeezed the sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands… Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
There’s an odd sort of textual tolerance within the book, of all men as brothers: “all sorts of men in one kind of world, you see.” Yet on the other hand we have Pip, the black cabin boy who loses his mind when he goes over in a whale boat; textually this is attributed to self-hatred because he is the cabin boy, yet it is only when Stubbs reminds him that he is worth less as a slave than the whale is for that same above sperm that truly breaks him. The racism in Moby Dick was (and is) breath-taking. The narrator explicitly states that it is the white man’s whiteness that empowers him to sovereignty, even as he dwells on the horror of too-pale things. One of the earliest scenes sees Ishmael accidentally stumble in to a church with a black congregation, an experience he finds terrifying. Even aboard the Pequod, where people are alleged to be assigned their value by contribution and skill, while their white fellow Starbuck exists as the voice of sanity and civilisation entreating Ahab to give up his quest€, the non-white Harpooners Tashtego, Daggoo and Queequeg loom large as mythic shadows:
“Relived against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real statures, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body.”
It is with the blood of the pagan that Ahab’s harpoon is anointed, to be made ready for the great dragon Moby Dick. The non-white crewmates serve as cyphers to translate Ahab in to the world of myth, to give his vendetta against the whale a greater imprimatur than mere madness. The ‘pagans’, alongside the oracular harpooner Fedellah who is identified as a practicing Zoroastrian, serve to translate Ahab’s quest in to the world of the pre-Christianised myth, to make of the hunt for the whale an epic in the vein of the Ramayana, Gilgamesh and, most appropriately, the Odyssey. Ahab is, like all heroes, semi-divine and set apart from others, “alone among millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbours!”
Yet Melville is at pains to remind the reader that this epic of the hunt is not purely transgressive but takes place within the permitted transgressions of civilised society. Ahab is unusual, exceptional, in both his whaling career – “out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore” – but this tale takes place within a greater context of mythic hunts that establish the foundation of civilised society. Returning to the madness of all healthy boys, it is integral to the civilised world to go out to the frontiers and hunt monsters. Melville asserts that the whale is the prime of these monsters; that St George, and Job, and Jonah all hunted them as Ahab now does. Indeed, Ahab reflects that “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” Questioning whether this is his part to play or merely part of a larger cycle of humanity. Later, though, we are assured that it is the man and not the myth who drives on, as “Ahab is for ever Ahab.” The core of the mythology remains human; here the influence of the Romantics in which rather than just be a plaything of gods, Ahab retains a core of the autonomous, unconquerable self. Moby Dick is a myth, but a modern myth. It is his drive to slay the whale that is his self-realisation and in its overawing power contains something of the overman.Ɨ
Of course, to establish the hero, one much establish the monster, which Melville does with all due rigour and certainty. As Ahab is divine, so is Moby Dick: “not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! Did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” Not merely a brute beast, Moby Dick is a cunning adversary worthy of heroic Ahab, possessed of “malicious intelligence.” There is something of the modern to this struggle; where elder ages passed in conflict with beasts unverifiable, the whale is likened to the locomotive, “the mighty Leviathan of the modern railway.” The Whale is “retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice his whole aspect.” In short, Moby Dick is Ahab reflected. Though the whale, and the hunt for it, is continuation of a story old as man, in this iteration the man and the beast slay each other; the full tilt at modernity, consuming self. Yet Ahab could not, would not turn off, as inevitable as time in his last (and probably most famous words):
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
Moby Dick remains an excellent and at times transgressive work. It is a difficult read, not particularly concerned with telling a story so much as opening windows to a world then under-appreciated, now gone. It provides insight to worlds that were outside the bounds of permissible society on land in the tiny, self-sustaining world of the Pequod; yet at the same time it shows us the limits and the limitations of those worlds. Ultimately, its desire is to return to land, to return to civilisation and remind us of what waits outside the borders: glory, immortality, self-destruction, and, of course, the White Whale.
*I have an idea for a story.
×Unusually, though in keeping with this symbolism, the sea is personified as masculine; “and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells… these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinking of the masculine sea.”
€ Starbuck: “never, never wilt though capture him, old man – in Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness.”
ƗConsider Starbuck, voice of reason and personification of civilisation, as he reflects that “I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!”